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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Frédéric Volpi on change and stability in North Africa

"Overall, political change is going to be messy, acrimonious, and not particularly effective for quite some time."

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Considering the so unexpected recent events that took place in the Middle East and North Africa, it may be asked how relevant or insightful scholarly analyses of the region actually are to explain regime change in this part of the world. No-one had anticipated the timing and shape of the current wave of democratic upheavals in the region. Over the last decade or so, regional experts spent most of their time explaining the success of authoritarian regimes in the region. They explained convincingly how the mixture of repression and cooptation put in place by different regimes prevented democratization processes to take hold. What these accounts hardly considered however was the emergence of new political dynamics that could challenge the status quo.

Although earlier explanations of North African politics cannot be directly used to explain current political transformations in the region, they remain nonetheless important to understand this new democratic wave. There is a direct relationship between the type of authoritarianism that existed in different countries of North Africa and the type of democratic upheavals, struggles and reforms that we are now seeing in the region.

In 2010, the five North Africa polities were located at different points of an authoritarian spectrum. At one end, Morocco displayed the more liberal form of authoritarianism, with an electoral democracy under the tutelage of the monarchy. At the other end, Tunisia with its ultra-dominant state-party system and a de facto president for life, and Libya with highly personalistic system of political control of the Gaddafi regime, illustrated the crudest form of authoritarianism. The Algerian and the Egyptian models were somewhere in between, as the limited competitiveness of the regime-controlled multiparty system remained in the hands of a small militaro-political elite.

In Tunisia, the systematic repression of political opposition effectively created the conditions for a violent overthrow of the regime. As spontaneous anti-governmental protests began to gain momentum at the end of December 2010 the Ben Ali regime could not open a dialogue with the protesters or with social and political actors due to its previous methods of governance. Early in 2011, the Tunisian security apparatus began to be overstretched due to the size of the protests and the regime found itself in a situation where it had to call upon the army to maintain the situation under control. Uncharacteristically for authoritarian states in the region, the Ben Ali regime did not maintain a strong relationship with the military. In those exceptional circumstances the leadership of the army chose not to side with the regime and to let the popular uprising follow its course -- a decision that directly contributed to the fall of the regime and the departure of Ben Ali in January 2011.

The relationship between the regime and the population in Libya was quite similar to that found in Tunisia and the start of the Libyan popular revolt in February 2011 was inspired and enabled by the events that took places in this neighbouring country. However, an important difference between the two countries was that the Libyan regime maintained strong organic relations with key units in the military – some of Gaddafi’s sons being in charge of elite units. As the wave of anti-governmental protests swept through the country in February 2011, the regime could hark back on its key constituencies, especially the capital, Tripoli, with the support of these loyal military forces. This advantage made the Gaddafi clan less inclined to give up power; and it also provided the regime with an opportunity to fight back. After three weeks of setback, the Gaddafi regime began to re-establish its authority throughout the country through the use of military force. From this point onward, and in particular with the military intervention of several states in favour of the opposition, the Libyan case is best considered not as a situation of democratic upraising but as an instance of armed conflict.

The military was also crucial in the Egyptian democratic transition but this time as part of a political process. This difference reflects a different organisation the Egyptian regime that not only maintained tight connections with the military institution as a whole (and not simply with elite units), but which also allowed some form of political opposition. As anti-governmental protests grew in strength in Egypt in January 2011, inspired by the change of regime in Tunisia, the state security apparatus began to be overwhelmed and the Mubarak regime also had to call upon the army to maintain the situation under control. The military leadership took into consideration its relation with Mubarak, its own corporate interests, the view of its international backers – particularly the US–, as well as the risks of divisions in the ranks, and opted for a half-way solution that protected the regime from a violent overthrow but that did not imply suppressing the popular uprising. In this context, the protest increasingly articulated itself as a negotiated process of democratic reform, as secular (ElBaradei) and Islamic (the Muslim Brotherhood) political actors formalised the demands of the demonstrators and appealed to reformers within the regime and within the military.

In contrast to the abovementioned countries, the situation in Algeria and Morocco in the first half of 2011 did not significantly change. Both countries were affected by the wave of social unrest that swept through the Middle East and North Africa – especially Algeria were rioting and cases of immolation by fire followed closely the uprising in Tunisia. Yet, in these two polities, sporadic protests did not turn into a nation-wide unrest that directly challenged the regimes. In part this situation resulted from the perception that the leaders of the Morocco and Algeria (King Mohammed VI, President Bouteflika) were not the main cause of the socio-economic and political ills of their country. Having been in power for less time than the rulers of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and having introduced a degree of political reform in their countries, their immediate removal was not a key demand of the protesters. In addition, due to the semi-democratic nature of these regimes, state actors could more easily open channels of communication with opposition forces in order to offer reforms that met some of the demands of the protestors. These conciliatory moves, though accompanied be some police repression, calmed the situation principally because the opposition and the protesters had some reasonable expectations that the system could still be reformed.

The political prospects for the citizens of North Africa today are certainly brighter that they were yesterday. However, the transformation of politics in the region is not going to be straightforward or easy in the short to medium term. Democratization processes can reach very similar ends slowly or quickly, through progressive reform or through revolutionary change. The sudden fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011 illustrated the revolutionary route to change; even though serious efforts will still be needed to institutionalise democratic politics there. The situation in Libya at the time of writing illustrates some of the main difficulties of a sudden attempt at regime change. Not only is such an attempt likely to result in a high level of violence when the regime decides to put up a fight, but also, the institutionalisation of democratic life in the ‘liberated’ areas is complicated to organise due to the limited political and economic resources available. By contrast, even during the tense 2011 Arab Spring, the slowly-slowly approach to democratisation chosen by the Moroccan monarchy illustrates that a well-timed step-by-step reform of an authoritarian system can liberalise politics via a different route. Of course such a progressive transformation rests upon the ability of a regime to continuously offer reforms that are sufficient to ensure that popular mobilisation does not gain momentum. Overall, throughout the region, political change is going to be messy, acrimonious, and not particularly effective for quite some time. These are the usual pains of democratisation processes and North Africa will simply have to muddle through this uneasy period as many other polities did before.

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